History Check: Over 100 years of Karhu | Grailify
History Check: Over 100 years of Karhu

History Check: Over 100 years of Karhu

So which are the oldest shoe brands still active today? adidas, Converse and Keds quickly come to mind, but the selection should also include an outsider champion from the far north: Finnish sports shoe brand Karhu has been in business for over 100 years, with origins dating back to 1916. Sneaker fans are familiar with the brand's lifestyle collection, Karhu Originals, while many of Karhu's secrets remain under the radar. Where did Adolf Dassler really get his three stripes? Who was the first to put "air" in sports shoes? And where did the bear logo come from? Our Sneakers History Check provides the answers.

1916: Set up and in Operation

Shoes have been on the agenda from the very beginning. Karhu was founded in 1916 under the name "Ab Sportartiklar" in a small workshop in Helsinki. Among the first products Karhu offered were javelins, skis and birchwood discus balls, as well as running shoes and spikes to enhance performance on the track.
"You can definitely say that Karhu's DNA is rooted in running. Karhu has been making running shoes since its beginnings in 1916, and it was also a bit lucky, because when Karhu took its first steps as a brand, Finnish middle and long-distance runners were gaining international recognition. And of course they wore Karhus," says Karhu brand manager Jukka Lehtinen.

1920: Make Way for the "Flying Finns"

Look who's coming up on the podium. Finland's record-breaking marathon runners, known internationally as the "Flying Finns", established themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage. Starting with Hannes Kolehmainen, the first "Flying Finn", athletes like Ville Ritola, the "Flying Wolf", dominated races in Europe and the USA. And you know what? These guys need fast shoes!
The timing was perfect: in 1920, the young brand changed its name to Karhu - the Finnish word for "bear". And that year would go down in history as the year the Flying Finns stepped into the spotlight at the Antwerp Olympics. "When you think about it, it's quite amazing that a brand that was just four years old in 1920 was outfitting all these Finnish athletes who were winning Olympic medals. That gave Karhu a good start in business," says Jukka Lehtinen.

1924: Official Olympic Team Supplier

Now it's official! After another medal success of the "Flying Finns" at the Olympic Games in Paris, Karhu was appointed as Finland's official outfitter at all Olympic Games. This allowed the company to provide footwear to exceptional athletes like Paavo Nurmi, who won nine Olympic gold medals in just eight years.
This announcement had a major impact on Karhu's product selection. In one fell swoop, running shoes moved from the fringes of Karhu's product range to the centre of attention, with full focus on research and development to improve designs. "As for our corporate philosophy, we always say that Karhu follows the Finnish principles of simplicity of design and purity of running," says Jukka Lehtinen.

1930s-1940s: Athlete-Centred Corporate Culture

It may not be a picture from the 1930s, but Karhu has made it their mission to sell shoes exactly where serious running has been from the beginning.
The purity of running remains at the heart of Karhu's brand DNA. The company has created the blueprint for a sporty and athlete-centric company, as the spirit of running permeates all levels of the company: while Karhu's successful athletes provided important feedback on performance characteristics, running was deeply integrated into the company culture at the employee level.
As early as the 1930s, Karhu employees were encouraged to exercise during their lunch break - a practice found today at Silicon Valley technology companies like Google - while the Flying Finns continued to bring home gold medals by the dozen, making Karhu one of the world's leading manufacturers of athletic footwear in the 1930s and 1940s.

1952: The Truth About the Three Stripes

Karhu athletics shoe from the 1940s with three stripes.
There is a little-known anecdote about the Bavarian shoe magnate Adolf Dassler, who founded adidas in 1924. Early in the company's history, Karhu introduced three stripes as a characteristic design element on its shoes. This is said to have caught the attention of Dassler, who approached the Finns in the early 1950s, "probably at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki," according to Jukka Lehtinen.
According to Karhu, the two brands struck a historic deal that would go down in the history of sports brands: "Adi met the Karhu directors and invited them to Germany. The result of this trip was that Karhu sold the [three-stripe] trademark to adidas for a small sum, about 1,600 euros by today's standards, and a few bottles of good whiskey," the brand manager continues: "That's how the story goes, although we have no proof of the whiskey."

Early 1950s: A New Logo

Big re-branding effort! After the deal with adidas, the German brand would (literally) run with the three-stripe logo and build an internationally recognised brand around it.

As a result, Karhu needed a new brand symbol. "This prompted us to redesign our logo, and since then the "M" symbol has been emblazoned on our shoes. The "M" comes from the word "Mestari", which means master or champion in Finnish," says Jukka Lehtinen.

Mid-1960s: Casual Shoes

Karhu Trampas model from 1968.
Performance on the track meets style off the track. In the early 1960s, Karhu recognised the need for an off-track training shoe, as they were always listening to feedback from their top runners. The result was Karhu's first "trainer" - the classic Trampas model, which was produced in two versions: A sporty version with the iconic "M" logo and bear badge, and a version without the logo for casual wear.

The Finnish President of 1966, Urho Kekkonen, wears Karhus.
The shoe received an overwhelming response from the global running community and became the standard footwear not only for the Finnish Olympic team, but also for 20 US colleges. Reportedly, legendary long-distance running coach Sir Arthur Lydiard called the Trampas "the best training shoe in the world."

By and large, the Trampas also proved to be a perfect match for a burgeoning trend: "It was developed at the height of the first jogging boom in the mid-1960s, when there was a need for a trainer that people could use outside the track, while most running shoes were designed for track and field," says Jukka Lehtinen.

1973: Karhu Trampas Leather, see insole!

1976: Introduction of Air-Cushioned Shoes

1976 Karhu Champion Model
Who actually invented air-cushioned shoes? Karhu introduced a number of new synthetic materials and pioneering technologies in its running shoes in the 1960s and 70s, including nylon and air cushioning - another little-known first in shoe history: "Karhu started developing air technology back in the early 70s, and it was launched in 1976 with a shoe called Champion. That was a few years before Nike launched its shoe," says Jukka Lehtinen.

1977 Karhu Balance Prototype
This makes Karhu "the first brand with a patent on an air cushion sole. This was Karhu's commercial heyday and we were going head-to-head with the other big brands in the Nordic countries and some other key markets."

The Champion model, worn by top Finnish runners such as Olavi Suomalainen in international competitions, became a bestseller for Karhu and sold over 1,000,000 units worldwide in its first year. "Our best-selling model of all time and also the world's first running shoe with Air Cushion technology."

1982: Flying like an Albatross

1982 Karhu model Albatross.
Nike has the Cortez, adidas has the Stan Smith. One of Karhu's most enduring and classic silhouettes hit shops in 1982: the Albatross model. "It was one of our best-selling sneakers in the early 1980s. The shoe came out in strong, really commercial colours and fitted most runners' feet. Obviously that hasn't changed much, because our retro version also sells very well," says Jukka Lehtinen.
Successful re-releases include the Karhu Albatross "Nordic Berries" from 2015. The wild berry-inspired pack included three styles inspired by blueberry, lingonberry and sea buckthorn, berries that grow in Finnish nature. The colour of the upper of each style matches the colour of one of the berries, while the footbed features an all-over berry print.

Karhu Albatross Nordic Berries, 2015 edition.

1984: Harlem Air

Make way, Chuck Taylor! Karhu hit the bull's eye when they brought their Scandinavian warmth to the basketball world in 1984: The Harlem Air, a high-top shoe made of leather, won over serious players with its excellent ankle support and two pivot points on the outsole - a standard today, but a big deal back then, in 1984. Bounce!

1986: Better Than Air?

Fulcrum XC model 1986.
The development continues. Although air-cushioned shoes mushroomed at retailers around the world, a joint research project between Karhu and the University of Jyväskylä revealed interesting findings: "We learned that the air sole makes the shoe soft and cushioned, but it is not optimal for running shoes," says Jukka Lehtinen. "The air system wastes the runner's energy and makes him bounce up and down more. And running shouldn't be about bouncing up and down, it should be about moving forward!"

Development sketch for the Fulcrum Star model.
Despite the commercial success, Karhu abandoned the air system in 1986 and started the next push to develop the running-specific technology: "We developed a Fulcrum concept that makes the runner's biomechanics as natural and efficient as possible. Of course, we are still researching and developing Fulcrum technology to take it to the next level every year, but the principle of this rolling effect has not changed since 1986."

1986 - Today: Fulcrum Gives the Runners a Jump

The market was hungry for new technologies and Fulcrum struck a chord. "The innovative Fulcrum technology that we still use today in our performance shoes was first introduced in 1986 with the Fulcrum Star."

1991 Karhu Lady AC107
Word spread like wildfire in the international running community and many die-hard runners swear by the Fulcrum concept. A runner named Dori from the USA stated in her marathon blog: "I am not exaggerating when I say that these Karhu shoes have changed my running life!"
Scientific research has shown that the Fulcrum concept reduces the runner's vertical bounce by 13% compared to conventional shoes and 5% compared to barefoot running.

1996: A New Kind of Lacing

1996 Synchron Classic model.
A new way to lace up the shoe. Over the years, just about all sports shoe brands have experimented with alternative lacing techniques and developed concepts ranging from cables to Velcro fasteners. Karhu's contribution was called synchronous lacing: "Synchron was an unorthodox lacing innovation by Karhu in 1980. The diagonal lacing across the toe box encloses the foot tightly in the shoe, offering the runner a better fit," says Jukka Lehtinen.
The technology found its way into many models, culminating with a 1996 version: "There are many great silhouettes from the Synchron family, like the 1984 Athletic model, but our favourite at the moment is the 1996 Synchron Classic, which we may bring back in the near future."

2000s: Lifestyle with Karhu Originals

The Karhu Aria model from 1995.
A look at history and a look ahead. As a lifestyle counterpart to the track-inspired performance models, Karhu continues to offer stylish classics with the Karhu Originals line. Alongside contemporary reissues of design milestones such as the Aria and Trampas models, Karhu Originals creates a buzz with carefully selected collaborations.
1992 Early development sketch for the Aria model.
"We don't want to create excess in the market and do collaborations just for the sake of doing collaborations, you know? We will only choose those who can make a difference. And to be sure, we deal with our Finnish roots on the brand and shop side. This applies to both clothing and footwear," says Jukka Lehtinen.

2015: Concepts x Karhu Aria '95

Building bridges across the Atlantic. In 2015, Karhu teamed up with Boston sneaker shop Concepts to revive a true classic: The Aria '95. Dark blue, lighter blue and turquoise are mixed with an orange insole for a bright summer look! The colourway pays homage to Finland, the home country of Karhu!
"The Aria was an icon for Karhu in the mid-1990s. At the time it was probably the most technical running shoe in the collection with a Fulcrum midsole, mono-tongue upper and carbon fibre plate in the midsole. We have worked really hard to bring this silhouette back to life and are excited to bring it back to the market after 20 years, says Jukka Lehtinen.

2015: Karhu x Moomin x Sneakersnstuff

Take advantage of these synergies. In 2015, Karhu activated sneaker enthusiasts across Scandinavia for the classic comic-inspired project Moomin x Sneakerstuff. "The guys from Sneakerstuff like Karhu because Finland and Sweden are neighbours and there aren't many Swedish sneaker brands," says Jukka Lehtinen.
"The Moomin comics were a fitting concept for the collaboration because they grew up with the Moomin stories. But of course it was a bold move to go for all-over cartoon prints for our first real collaboration, but it's good to think outside the box sometimes with projects like this."

2000s: Still Focused on Performance

2013 Steady3 Fulcrum.
Despite its success in the lifestyle segment, Karhu's heart still beats for performance. Among die-hard runners, Karhu ranks right up there with Asics when it comes to proven, running-specific technology. In 2009, Runner's World magazine named the updated Karhu Fulcrum Strong model the "best debut" running shoe of the year.
In 2013, Karhu introduced the "training shoes of the future" with the Fluid3 Fulcrum and Steady3 Fulcrum models, continuing its innovative legacy. Watch the Fulcrum technology video here.

2015: Embracing History

Take a virtual tour. In 2015, Karhu launched its own online museum to bring the brand to a growing international audience. "We want to launch the online museum to educate consumers and show our beautiful history. We want to show our brand DNA, and the museum is a good way to present it online as well," says Jukka.
Putting together the exhibits for the online museum was anything but easy, as Karhu's archiving efforts have met with major setbacks over the years: "This is partly a sad story, because in the 1950s there was a fire accident at Karhu's headquarters in Helsinki, and while the offices burned down, so did the archives. That's why we don't have many products from the first decades. After the accident, they were apparently so devastated that their interest in archiving waned."

2016: Celebrating 100 Years in the Fast Lane

The bear logo is celebrating a heavy anniversary. In the run-up to Karhu's 100th anniversary in 2016, there has been a resurgence of interest in building a cohesive shoe archive: "Not long ago we started collecting old Karhus again, and the archive is growing all the time. We make car trips around Finland to visit old sports and shoe shops and old athletes who used to be sponsored by Karhu. Sometimes we get lucky and find some real treasures," says Jukka.
One of the biggest comebacks: the Karhu x Patta "Synchron Classic" is made of premium nubuck uppers complemented by durable mesh, pigskin lining and 3M reflective accents. The heels and tongues feature embroidered Patta and KARHU branding.

2017: Karhu Synchron Classic „Paavo Nurmi“

I feel like Paavo when I put on my shoes. In 2017, Karhu celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Paavo Nurmi Games, a track and field event named after the Finnish athletics icon from the city of Turku, with a special drop: the Karhu Synchron Classic "Paavo Nurmi" features a monochrome colourway inspired by Nurmi's preference for white kangaroo leather shoes in the 1920s, when his colleagues on the track still wore all-black racing spikes.
Each collector's box also includes a booklet about Paavo Nurmi's life and achievements. Did you know, for example, that the "flying Finn" is still the most decorated track and field athlete in Olympic history? With nine gold and three silver medals, Nurmi set 22 world records during his career.

Also in 2017, Kanye West took time out from representing his Yeezy line when he was spotted wearing a pair of Karhu Fusion 2.0 "Mount Pallas Caramel" sneakers in Brentwood, California. This is a salute from one of the world's most famous sneakerheads to one of the oldest brands - and just one of many milestones in Karhu's history.

Latest Sneaker News